Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Height: 5.500 cm
Collected by William O.
Gift of Mrs D.K. Oldman
Africa, Oceania, Americas
From Tonga, Polynesia
Possibly 19th century AD
This figurine is carved from the tooth of a sperm whale, which are naturally cream in colour, but in this case the ivory has a golden patina. Tongans and Fijians favoured a deep orange or golden colour for ivory artefacts. This was achieved by coating the figure with oil and suspending it over smoke. Further applications of oil and additional handling were necessary to avoid the colour fading. These figures were worn as pendants or charms by Tongan women of high status, or were suspended inside a god house.
Polynesians did not hunt whales themselves - they used the teeth from beached whales. The start of commercial whale and walrus hunting and ivory trading by Americans and Europeans in the South Pacific in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century increased the availability of the raw material.
This style of small figure was sometimes carved as part of an ivory hook used to suspend food from rafters, to keep it out of the reach of rats. A fine example in the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, includes two female figures standing back to back. The Cambridge hook was collected in Fiji, but was made by Tongans, probably in this form to satisfy Fijian requirements.
W.O. Oldman, The Oldman Collection of Polyn, Memoirs of the Polynesian Society, vol. l5 (New Plymouth, N.Z., T. Avery & Sons Ltd, 1943)
T. Barrow, Art and life in Polynesia (London, Pall Mall Press, 1972)
A. L. Kaeppler, 'Aspects of Polynesian aesthetic traditions' in The art of the Pacific Islands (Washington, National Gallery of Art, 1979)